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Death Penalty – yay or nay?

September 28, 2011

Capital punishment also known as the death penalty has been abolished in Australia in 1973 with the last person being executed by hanging in 1967. These days it appears to be a non-issue and a topic of little concern in the public’s eyes.

I dug up this little snippet of Australian history on the subject when doing some reading into the arguments for and against capital punishment. Most Western countries have done away with death penalty laws, with a large exception being theUS(I think there are a few other small countries).

For that fact it’s clear that the topic is much weightier and stands as a greater topic of debate among the people on those shores. It flairs up every now and then when the media picks up odd cases and gives them unending coverage. There was just such a case featuring a man by the name of  Troy Davis who was convicted on some murder charges and put to death by lethal injection last week. Davis was denying the charges, stating that he is innocent to the end. There were people in both camps, supporting Davis and others pleading for his death. The main controversy was that the evidence that tied him to the crime was questioned and that the state may have executed an innocent man.

I didn’t really following the case and don’t intend to discuss the minutia of the prosecution and the defence teams. Instead I wanted to write about what I feel are the best arguments for and against capital punishment and perhaps play a devils advocate for both. Why I decided to frame this post in such a manner will become clear at the end. When I present a particular argument I will borrow the quote from one of the number of authors I read on the subject. This is chiefly because the argument conveys what I was going to write anyway and because the author writes in good prose.


Against Capital Punishment

Since I reside in Australia that has abolished capital punishment, I will put down what I thought was the strongest argument against the practise first.

The argument is presenting the possibility of the person being innocent or perhaps the circumstances that have been overlooked that would at least mitigate the person’s punishment.

“A society that respects life should never permit itself to execute an innocent person if it is within the society’s capacity to avoid such an act — as it surely is. Refraining from executing even those persons who may deserve execution is the way — the only way — in which to avert the occasional execution of persons mistakenly convicted, and to leave open the possibility of their exoneration.”


“If execution of the innocent nevertheless is avoidable, a humane society will elect the option that avoids it. Most of those who murder are, after all, already spared. Sparing the small remainder is cheap insurance against the most terrible consequence of judicial fallibility.”


Devils advocate response/Rebuttal

Only the most serious of crimes are considered for execution and only if there is enough evidence to tie the person to the crime. With ever advancing forensic technology and techniques such as extraction of DNA, the possibility of wrongful conviction becomes less and less. If the justice system only allowed cases that had 100% certainly no one would be convicted of crimes as there would always be slivers of doubt.

The current legal system procedures already ensure that every case involving the death sentence meticulously examines & considers all the facts surrounding the case, which takes many years and man hours.


For Capital Punishment

The strongest argument I found for capital punishment was in the excerpt below that argues; nothing short of the death penalty would show justice in society for the most heinous crimes. The state has an obligation to carry out the execution for the sake of the victims and the charge of the State being as guilty as the murderer holds no merit.

“Executing a murderer is the only way adequately to express our horror at the taking of an innocent life. Nothing else suffices. To equate the lives of killers with those of victims is the worst kind of moral equivalency. If capital punishment is state murder, then imprisonment is state kidnapping, and restitution is state theft. A murderer sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole can still laugh, learn and love, listen to music and read, form friendships, and do the thousand-and-one things (mundane and sublime) forever foreclosed to his victims.”


Devils advocate response/Rebuttal

The family and close relations to the victims may not want to execute the person responsible for the crime. They may believe that the best punishment for the crime is indefinite life imprisonment. Especially with modern painless methods of executing people such as lethal injection, the justice wouldn’t be served. Perhaps the greater solace to the victim’s family is for the criminal to realise their crimes and suffer from deep remorse for the rest of their lives behind high security prison walls.

Finally the quote assumes that only capital punishment suffices for the grizzly crimes, as if some equilibrium is restored after the criminal is killed.


Final thoughts

The reason I chose the above format becomes clear as the to and fro arguments demonstrate my mixed views. Perhaps both punishment methods have their strengths and weaknesses, with the society deciding which suits them best. There were a number of other arguments which were interesting but which I chose not to include even though they added to the complexity of the subject.

Just a final note, the part of me that supports capital punishment is only in favour of humane ways of ending the criminal’s life. That would rule out hanging, electric chair etc.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Alen permalink
    September 28, 2011 9:28 pm

    What is the purpose of the justice system?

    There are different ways of looking at why we put people in prison. Some say that it is punishment for the wrong that they did. Some say it is to protect society from people who obviously cannot participate in it. Others still say it is to rehabilitate people so that they may integrate back into society.

    Maybe I’m just soft but to view the justice system as merely a method of punishing people seems rather barbaric. The reasons people commit crimes are often multifaceted and as much of a cop out it seems, your background does play a large part into who you become. Someone who grew up being abused in every which way is not going to grow up to be a “normal person”.

    I think we should be rehabilitative as much as we possibly can. Some people can’t be rehabilitated and in that case we need to protect society. While in prison, I’d want to make them as productive to society as possible to offset any “cost” there may be associated with keeping them locked up.

    In the end a death penalty isn’t much of a “punishment” if the person won’t be consciously aware of it after it happens.

    • September 29, 2011 4:30 pm

      Thanks for the response Alen. I think what you laid out in your first paragraph is great. From reading articles on the criminal system in Australia it sounds like all these factors are taken together to different degrees based on the individual case and person.
      But punishment seems to be the main method of dealing with crime, based on the idea of ‘just deserts’/ serving justice. Especially with smaller cases of breaking the law, most people receive fines as the punishment. There is little rehabilitation in that, rather it seems to penalise people and acts as deterrents for future cases as well as for others. What level of punishment would be considered “barbaric”?

      But there is definitely strong focus on rehabilitation for juvenile crimes, with most cases involving programs to correct behaviour as oppose to punish with jail. More serious crime would use all three methods of dealing with the problem. Punish the defendant with restriction in jail, work on rehabilitating them if and when they get back into society, and removing them from the streets so that more crimes won’t be committed in the mean time.
      Regarding the multi-face nature of crimes, that also appears to be included in the justice system. Factors like intent, premeditation, planning, age, mental health, remorse over the act, persons past convictions and even race would be considered. I touched on that in the ‘determinism & moral responsibility’ post that used an example of a person being killed by a gun but with different causes leading to different levels of outrage. So I definitely think that the punishment should be determined after all considerations. And I believe rehabilitation should be part of the formula when possible.
      I think in a way I can see and agree with what you mean by the word “barbaric” in relation to capital punishment. The argument would go something like this: society has risen above the eye for an eye mentality; no longer do we cut a thief’s hands off if he steals. Human dignity should be valued and upheld and mere retribution should be looked down upon in all cases. That’s one reason why I would side against the death penalty.

      The side of me that does support it, doesn’t see it as simple retribution but as an extension of the punishments that people already receive. A hard prison would punish the person by severely limiting the freedom they have; capital punishment would completely eliminate that freedom. There shouldn’t be a spectacle of the criminal being roasted or hanged in front of relatives of the victim, rather a simple death e.g. lethal injection would be enough. This would in my opinion still maintain the standard the society has for human dignity.

      Let’s take the example of Anders Breivik the guy behind the 2011 Norway massacre. If punishment plays no role in what society does with the man, and the only reason he is in jail, is to protect the society while receiving rehabilitation programs. There is a possibility that a rehabilitation program would make Breivik realise how wrong he was, denounce the acts and become a changed man. He should then be considered no longer a danger to society and could be released within a couple of years? The families of the victims I am sure would be beyond outraged as well as the rest of Norway and the world. That example would suggest that punishment is an important element of justice in society, as Breivik would and will remain in jail (no death sentence in Norway) per him ‘just deserts’ for the crimes.

      I thought this particular articles was great. It does argues against capital punishment so it’s a bonus for you.

      • Alen permalink
        September 29, 2011 7:59 pm

        Once again this leads me to my initial question: What is the purpose of the justice system?

        To keep law and order? If that’s the case then, we are basically wanting to control behavior. In terms of controlling behavior positive reinforcement works far better than negative reinforcement (punishment) to achieve this goal. This is why rehabilitation should be the main goal of the justice system.

        If the answer was instead “to seek vengeance for those wronged” than I can see why punishment would be chosen. However vengeance comes at a cost. Only the person wronged will have his blood thirst quenched and the wrongdoer and society both lose. Personal feelings should not get in the way for the “greater good”. That is why we judge people in court and not in the home of those wronged.

        I don’t think I disagreed with how we currently run things, the points you brought up are the main reason I see that we’re at least in the right direction but not completely there. For example, if I stole $50 from someone, or from a store or whatever and even if I didn’t assault the person or threaten them in any way, I can get a year in jail, if my stars are not aligned. That’s a long time for something I earn in a couple hours of work.

        I think we’ve become desensitized to prison terms because people get outraged that people spend “only” 10 or 20 years in jail for a crime. In the end we have improved; as society has evolved we’ve moved away from the vengeance model to the rehabilitation model. We are still in between the two but we’ll eventually get there, it’ll just take time.

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